A proposal on reforming misogyny and toxicity in debate
Thank you to Hannah Koegler, Julia Wu, Breigh Plat, Sarai Pridgen, Jayanne Forrest, Becca Traber, Grant Brown, Ava Kam, Zoella Lin, Pranathi Srirangam, and Megha Prasad for the endless support during our struggles and endeavors to reform our debate communities.
This article is reflective of our experiences and our experiences alone, as Lincoln Douglas debaters and the two eldest, longest competing, women on our large nationally-competitive male-dominated teams: Lexington High School and Lake Highland Prep. In no way are we asserting that Black and Indigenous women, queer women, or disabled women have the same experiences. In fact, we encourage those unique perspectives to be shared by people of those identities. Additionally, we want to clarify that while we refer to women and/or girls, these experiences are often shared with non-binary and other gender minorities as well.
Trigger Warnings— sexual assault, eating disorders, mental health, misogyny
Being a woman in debate is already an accomplishment; the expectation of not only being a good debater but also a role model for young female debaters, even after years of enduring mental exhaustion, is not discussed enough. Women in debate are always expected to do and be more than their male teammates. To all the female debaters out there, whether you hold leadership positions or not, never be afraid of being selfish in prioritizing your mental health. The burnout is real.
Although the following proposals have been created with the intention of reforming the heavily gendered spaces we reside in, the results will likely benefit everyone in the community exemplified by the concept of “universal design.”
The phenomenon of universal design sparked with the emergence of “the curb cut effect,” a finding that curb cuts, made initially for wheelchair users, proved to be beneficial for all pedestrians: mothers with strollers, the elderly with walkers, and bicycle riders.
These proposals are not only helpful for women who face exclusion on their debate teams, but also for everyone to find comfort within the competitive and polarizing nature of debate. The idea is not only to reform the space so that women feel more comfortable, but also to produce a healthier and happier community for everyone.
At the end of a debater’s novice year they enter the unknown, facing a stark awakening to both technical debate and circuit norms. Having discussions about the realities of these topics are absolutely crucial, and something that both of us deserved to have been better informed on. Hoping to provide that insight to our younger teammates, we want to stop the cycle at an earlier point before damage is done. While having these discussions too soon may be discouraging, we believe the end of novice year is a crucial time to address them. The transition from novice to JV leaves debaters vulnerable to social influences and idolization of unhealthy habits that need to be discussed sooner rather than later.
As many of these topics promote highly sensitive conversations, having coach oversight as a mandatory reporter is imperative should a student express serious trauma or immediate danger. Typically, mandatory reporters are legally obligated to report cases in which a student may be in danger or a danger to others, however specifics often vary by state. Facilitators of these conversations should inform themselves and those participating in the discussions beforehand on what they are required to report. To put a face to the issue, if a varsity debater is willing to co-host the conversation with their coach and share their own experiences and insight, we also invite them to do so. We understand these discussions are difficult ones to have and that many may not have training to facilitate them. At the bottom of the article are a series of resources for trauma-informed facilitation training.
The following are a few discussion points (in no particular order) we believe are important to bring up as well as our suggested concrete actions for how teams and the debate community as a whole can work to resolve them.
Bro-Culture and Hypercompetitiveness
Debate has an undeniably strong “bro-culture” and its hyper-competitive nature often serves to worsen the toxicity of this culture. To clarify, when we say “bro-culture”, we are talking about the often hypermasculine microaggressions committed by male debaters who often idolize other (typically male) debaters by their competitive success. The bro-culture is manifested in comments about female debaters or judge’s appearances, condescending behavior toward female debaters (for example, invalidating female debaters successes or refusing to help female teammates), preffing known sexist judges highly because the sexism doesn’t affect them, and the assumption that good debaters are good people and that competitive success excuses poor behavior. Even those who are complicit in these behaviors or actions show implicit support. These microaggressions not only make debate an uncomfortable place to be in, but place extraordinary pressure on female debaters to do well (despite oftentimes not being recognized even when they do) and eventually burn-out.
We encourage debaters to reflect upon how they may have contributed to this culture and/or share how it has affected them. Consider times you have been a bystander to a female teammate being excluded, times you have actively left a female teammate out of conversations at practice or while on tournaments, ignoring them or failing to offer an extra seat, and times you have formed group chats for prepping or playing games without thinking twice to include your fellow female teammates. When in doubt, always offer all teammates equal opportunity to be included in any events, group chats, etc.
Our mentors have greatly shaped our experiences in debate. Having someone to look up to, talk to, relate to, and rely on becomes especially important for women and underrepresented members of the debate community. Particularly in the high stress and competitive environment inherent to debate, it can make all the difference knowing someone is in your corner. These are often long-lasting experiences that extend beyond graduation and help guide younger girls as they grow into the unique role of being role models and leaders for the next generation. In fact, Mayah still reaches out to her old captain, Julia Wu, for advice on leading her debate team, the college application process, and much more.
While we do emphasize the importance of girl-on-girl mentorships, it’s just as important for all debaters on the team to feel supported by any mentor, including male debaters on the team. Recognizing the possibility of mentors becoming poor influences or proliferating negative behavior, it is important that mentees have more than one mentor. Assignments could be made by the coach or team captain, taking into consideration people’s preferences, argument styles, and what they hope to get out of the program which can be collected via google form. To ensure that mentor-mentee relationships are healthy and mutually beneficial, we recommend that the person organizing the program conduct bi-monthly, one-on-one check-ins, whether that be through a google form or in person.
Judge Training and Preffing
Teams can support female debaters that face microaggressions from judges (getting worse speaks for having high pitched voices, not dressing professionally enough, being deemed too assertive, etc.) by ensuring that all judges from the school go through basic training to be taught what fair measures of speaker-point deduction are and are not. When marking preferences for a tournament, making the team-wide decision to strike a judge that previously made a female debater on the team uncomfortable is another measure that can and should be taken to prove solidarity and support of that debater. Additionally, tournaments should not hire judges with a history of sexual harassment accusations.
Grind Mentality and Mental Health
“I only slept 4 hours last night” is a phrase that becomes a brag at a debate tournament. The “grind mentality”, not only normalizes but romanticizes unhealthy behaviors such as not sleeping, not eating, working for hours and hours on end without breaks, pulling all nighters to prep, etc. There is a distinction between appreciating someone’s work ethic and glorifying toxic work mentalities. Mental health is put to the backburner and we see this in the all too common occurrence of burnout and mental breakdowns associated with debate. These are all issues that greatly affect everyone, regardless of gender, but the unique pressures placed on female debaters often amplify these effects.
We propose that varsity debaters never glorify their lack of sleep, especially in front of younger debaters, and always encourage teammates to prioritize eating and sleeping. Coaches also need to set a curfew to stop working with debaters after a specific time depending on arranged waking hours. The grind mentality can be especially strong at debate camps, when debate becomes the 24/7, and we urge debate camps to also set curfews, encourage debaters to prioritize their physical and mental health, and reduce homework.
Additionally, team bonding can help make debate less of a high-stress competitive environment. Taking the time for team activities emphasizes the importance of having memorable experiences rather than fixating on tournament records.
Team bonding humanizes everyone on the team, something that is often lost in the hyper-competitive nature of debate. This can be done at any time, regularly every month, or while busing back from debate tournaments. Robin has fond memories of conversations with teammates on bus rides back from tournaments, from jokes about getting lost to rating the best food places. A blanket opt-out, no-questions-asked policy should be assumed for all of these activities and they should be designed in such a way that those participating have some autonomy over who they work closely with.
The cut-throat nature of debate can be alleviated through team-bonding for a common good. Whether it be through visiting a homeless shelter for the day or making birthday cards for senior citizens, spending time together to give back to the community emphasizes a humility otherwise inevident in many debaters that grow egotistical and self-centered amid success.
Promoting national mentoring services, like Women in Debate and PepTalk, encourages teammates to foster relationships with a wide range of debaters nationwide, forming role models that can help to encourage new mindsets necessary to produce leaders. The unique experience of transitioning from a mentee to a mentor increases a debater's awareness of their own special abilities, producing leaders equipped to take on inclusion issues within their own team.
Game nights bring fun to any work environment. Encouraging intermingling between male and female teammates is a first step in reducing tensions. Suggestions for games include Mafia, Apples to Apples, and Superfight. For games that would require a bit more preparation, try playing “Guess Who” by replacing the initial cartoons with photos of each team member, using their interests outside of debate or character traits to reveal who. Another suggestion could be playing “Family Feud” as a tournament, fostering team spirit in a context outside of debate.
Hosting events such as a Secret Snowflake or White Elephant gift exchange to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and/or Kwanzaa is a great way to show our appreciation for our teammates and genuine care for their various interests. Mayah remembers her varsity teammate, Hannah Koegler, helping to organize a gift exchange between her and fellow novices, and it remains one of her most cherished team memories.
Likewise, a potluck is a fun way to celebrate Thanksgiving on our teams by bringing everyone together to share meals from various debaters’ cultures, forming new appreciation and insight into each other's lives outside of debate.
Other bonding ideas include a collaborative holiday music playlist that everyone can add to, having a campfire and making smores and hot chocolate, and snow related activities (sledding, snowball fights, snowman building). For areas with warmer winters, teams can watch holiday movies or visit light shows.
Whether these awards take place at a Thanksgiving potluck, at a banquet, or at a team game night, creating superlative awards is a great way to make all teammates feel as though they serve a unique and purposeful role within their team. These should not be a form of internal competition or ranking within the team, but rather more light-hearted awards like, “most likely to do all their prep the night before” or “best puns.”
This part of the discussion can be difficult and sensitive and we encourage that the coach and leaders who are guiding these discussions make it clear that anyone may leave at any time should they feel uncomfortable.
Numerous factors encourage disordered eating in debaters: unhealthy foods at tournaments, the grind mentality, and anxiety. Unfortunately, a combination of these factors, if not all, usually work together.
Some concrete actions debate teams and tournaments can take include providing easily accessible, inclusive (of allergies and food intolerances) food options, eating meals with teammates, and encouraging debaters to prioritize their health over their competitive success.
Sexual Harassment and Assault
This part of the discussion can be difficult and sensitive and we encourage that the coach and leaders who are guiding these discussions make it clear that anyone may leave at any time should they feel uncomfortable. Additionally, adults present (such as coaches) and the school may need to take legal action depending on the content of what is shared. It is important that the coaches or facilitating adults understand their roles as mandatory reporters and preface the discussion to let those involved know what must be reported.
It is no secret by now that debate, at competitions, out of round, at debate camps, has its fair share of sexual harassment and assault. Recent accounts, such as Speech and Debate Stories on Instagram, which share anonymously submitted stories of discrimination in the debate community, show just a portion of what goes on behind the scenes. The organization of debate is decentralized and a lack of accreditation process for coaches make it vulnerable and difficult to hold abusers accountable. The idolization of competitively successful debaters often means they get away with offenses and implicitly pressure victims to stay silent.
A way for camps and teams to be proactive in minimizing sexual harassment and assault is by passing all camp instructors and coaches through a thorough background check. Utilizing the WDI’s “Gender Based Anti-Harassment Training” would be an effective measure as their training is tailored to the debate community. More information on this training can be found at the end of this article. We believe teams should also prioritize prevention through their norms and rules. For instance, ensuring there is never fully private one-on-one coaching, having reliable and secure open lines of communication between debaters and adults, alternative avenues of socialization and fun (specifically ones that don’t require touch), minimizing substance abuse, rules regarding hotel rooms at debate tournaments (ex: doors open, don’t go into other people’s rooms, prep in open spaces, etc).
For further reading, we’ve listed at the end of this article a non-exhaustive list of readings we found to shed light on issues in debate that should be amplified.
Call to Coaches
As coaches, your actions (or lack-thereof) play a huge role in team dynamics and the experiences of those on the team. It’s crucial that coaches are not reactive, but proactive and work toward preventing the misogyny and toxicity that drives women and gender minorities out of debate. Uniquely positioning yourselves towards minority debaters is vital. Time and time again we see women leave the activity, not just because of debate burnout, but because of the harassment and feelings of lack of support and solidarity. To fight this battle, women need to be present, and for women to be present, women need to feel supported. Complacency from an authority figure is practically permission. Coaches should report and call out any offensive behavior, targeting or singling out of female debaters or instances of sexual harassment, regardless of how competitely successful the perpetuator is.
In addition, coaches should discourage internal rankings and competitiveness, which usually place female debaters at the bottom of the tier and pit teammates against each other.
Precautions should be taken to ensure that female debaters have equal access to the resources available. This can mean publicly announcing practice times and practice debates, ensuring files are shared with all members of the team, and actively ensuring that all debaters receive equal support from coaches and judges.
While the girls on the team should feel safe, it is also important they do not feel tokenized. Instead of language like, “Be nice, we don’t have enough girls on the team as it is,” using language that recognizes the right to be respected and welcomed helps make female debaters feel wanted for who they are and not just the diversity they add to the team.
This is by far a non-exhaustive list of suggestions, and for coaches who are actively using their positions of power to tear down the systems of sexism and toxicity, we thank you greatly.
Call to You
Whether you are a male or female debater on your team, a novice, or a captain, being complicit in these microaggressions makes you just as much a part of the problem. Complacency and being a bystander fuels this toxic culture and gives power to the antagonizers. It makes the victims feel isolated and unsupported and it functions as a silent approval of these actions.
We cannot emphasize how important it is that we keep each other accountable and call each other out, especially when it is your teammates, your friends, and your partners who are perpetuating these behaviors. This can look like anything from directly saying, “hey, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” to “bro, that’s not cool.” Actively reach out to those on your team to see if there’s anything you can do to support them, take notice of when people are visibly uncomfortable, and remove them from the situation. Be conscious of your words and actions and apologize if your actions may have hurt others previously (however, know that the victim has no obligation to accept your apology). Check in on your female teammates. Make a conscious effort to make those around you feel comfortable and included. Validate and show support for female debaters who share their experiences and stories. Be compassionate. Be caring. Most importantly, be educated. If you have read this far, know we appreciate your efforts to understand a perspective you may not live. To further be an ally, strive to read literature based on gender studies, read other academic articles discussing the inequalities in debate, and use any privilege you have to better the community and people around you.
A precondition to being competitive is being comfortable. While every debater has a unique experience, too many women, like us, have shared similar feelings of discomfort for too long. Reforming our teams is the first step in reforming the community as a whole. Addressing the struggles women in debate face by discussing toxicities in the activity, creating mentors and role models, training judges properly, and hosting team bonding events will not only be beneficial for women and gender minorities, but will make anyone who struggles to find comfort able to debate in a healthier, safer, and more welcoming community. We hope this is a part of a long-term ongoing conversation and mission and we encourage other debaters, judges, and coaches to contribute and share their stories and suggestions.